A war is quietly brewing off the coast of Somalia.
In full view of the world's most potent navies, foreign fishing ships are plundering Somali waters in flagrant breach of international maritime law and threatening local communities whose survival depends on the trade.
Unregulated overfishing by foreign fleets provoked a rash of Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean a decade ago, when local fishermen who were being driven to financial ruin took up arms to defend territorial waters against intruders. They quickly expanded into lucrative and indiscriminate hostage-taking, attracting international attention as pirate gangs plagued the global shipping industry with assaults and ransom demands.
A veritable armada of warships from NATO, the European Union, and elsewherehas since pacified the region while ironically making it safe for illegal fishing fleets from countries like Yemen, Iran, and South Korea to return. If the issue is not addressed, desperate Somali fishermen could soon launch a second pirate war that officials fear will be much deadlier than the first.
Musa Mahamoud is a sprightly 55-year-old fisherman who works from the sweeping beach at Eyl, an ancient coastal town perched above the Indian Ocean whose name was once synonymous with piracy. He runs an intimidating gauntlet of illegal fishing boats every time he goes out to sea to put down his nets. A few weeks ago, he returned to find his nets slashed beyond repair. Mahamoud is one of the lucky ones. Some of his fellow fishermen have had their boats rammed by unregulated rivals. Others have been shot dead.
He doesn't feel lucky, though. Squeezed close to shore by the illegal vessels, his catch has dwindled by as much as 80 percent since their return to Somali waters.
Mahamoud says that he was never a pirate, but freely admits that he was a facilitator who provided weapons and equipment to the seafaring bandits. When asked whether he would again support such an effort, he said that he might not have a choice.
"If this illegal fishing doesn't stop, I will go back to it," the father of eight said, with no hesitation in his voice. "If a thief invades your house, are you going to stand by and watch? This is our livelihood!"
Five years ago, Eyl was Somalia's most notorious pirate hideout. The area's kingpins and their henchmen would roar through town in tinted 4x4s, secure deals in coffee dens, and collect ransom payments from the ocean that were dropped by light aircraft.
This criminal enterprise was very different to the one that began as a kind of vigilante coastguard, with armed fishermen extorting cash from unlicensed fishing boats. Then they started detaining the crews and taking their boats, larger sailing vessels that allowed them to seek out bigger and more lucrative targets further out at sea.
As the gangs grew richer and their operations more sophisticated, so did their ambitions.
"They found that attacking fishing vessels was pretty easy," said John Steed of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project that seeks to promote long-term solutions to maritime banditry. "Then, why not coastal vessels?"
The series of successes and the promise of big payouts led them to bigger targets farther out to sea, he added, to the point where the effort against illegal fishing had spiraled into the routine attacking and holding captive of cargo ships and oil tankers.
When this crisis was at its height in early 2011, Somali pirates were holding more than 30 ships and more than 700 hostages. When payday came, it could change lives. In 2010, a ransom of $9.5 million was paid to the hijackers of the South Korean tanker Samho Dream.
Many Somalis still feel broadly sympathetic to the pirates because of the disadvantages they face, and are inclined to believe that the international community was too harsh in combating piracy.
Driving through the ramshackle streets of Eyl, one sees little indication of its inglorious past.
Yet beneath the surface, said Faisal Wa'is, a local government official, tensions are at a "boiling point." A few weeks earlier, he raced to the shore to discourage a group of angry fishermen who were preparing to attack a foreign vessel that had been menacing locals.
"Unless something is done, I am afraid that piracy may come back," Wa'is said.
Wracked by a civil war and two decades of fighting, Somalia remains one of the poorest and most lawless countries in the world. In a nation with so little economic opportunity, fishing can be the only lifeline that coastal communities have.
With its 1,880 mile-long coastline, the longest on the African mainland, the country boasts one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, the waters teeming with shark, swordfish, tuna, sardines, snapper, and lobster.
Lured by Somalia's anarchy, foreigners operate under the radar, flying flags of convenience and painting over their boats' names to escape detection. Their captains all too easily exploit the country's chaotic and corrupt licensing regime, either by paying off certain officials for a license of sorts or by fishing without a license at all.
Able to act with impunity, they use highly destructive fishing methods, such as the bottom trawling that razes fish habitats, and gillnetting and purse-seining that ensnare large quantities of unwanted by-catch.
In doing so, they deprive fishermen of their means of support and the country's government of valuable revenue. A six-month survey into the rise of illegal fishing undertaken last year by Adeso, an African nonprofit working with coastal communities in Somalia, found that nearly 90 percent of the Somali fishermen it questioned had spotted foreign fishing boats close to shore.
'If NATO can chase away the pirates, then why not the illegal fishermen?'
"Illegal fishing is gouging from the nascent Somali economy a source of revenue that, if harnessed, could help build much needed infrastructure, provide healthcare and education to those who go without, and restore arid lands to grazing pastures," said Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, which warns that a failure to combat the illegal fishing vessels could motivate a resurgence in piracy.
There is some indication that it already has. In March, pirates from central Somalia captured two Iranian fishing vessels — one of which managed to escape in August — in the first successful hijackings in over two years. A UN report released last month pointed to Mohamed Osman Mohamed "Gafanje," a notorious pirate kingpin who was arrested by Somali forces in August last year and later released.
Secure Fisheries, a project that aims to help Somalia manage its fishing resources, estimates that foreign fishermen catch three times as much fish as Somalis — 132,000 metric tons compared to 40,000 caught by locals.
Many in Somalia would like to see the Western warships patrolling the ocean confront the illegal fishing boats despite not having a mandate to do so. Officials accuse the West of focusing on one narrow element of the crisis while neglecting the grievances that gave rise to piracy in the first place.
"NATO came because of the piracy, but the cause of piracy is the illegal fishing," Wa'is said. "If NATO can chase away the pirates, then why not the illegal fishermen?"
While officials in the once pirate-heavy state of Puntland suggest that their efforts to paint piracy as un-Islamic have received wide support, many Somalis still feel broadly sympathetic to the pirates because of the disadvantages they face, and are inclined to believe that the international community was too harsh in combating piracy. Foreign navies detained hundreds of suspected pirates at sea, shunting them to neutral locations such as the Seychelles to be put on trial. Many of them received lengthy prison terms.
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Mohammed Mahamoud, a portly 37-year-old convicted of piracy in the Seychelles, will probably spend the next two decades of his life in a squalid and overcrowded prison the northern Somali port town of Bosaso.
Spitting angrily on the ground as he recounted his arrest, he claims that he was simply a fisherman chasing off an Iranian fishing vessel that had strayed into Somali waters when he and his five crew members — armed, he said, with pistols — were picked up by foreign navies and plunged into a bewildering judicial process. Denied an interpreter, he claimed, he and his crew only learned of their sentence from fellow inmates.
"We were like toys," he said. "We knew there was no government to defend us."
Adding to his sense of injustice, he noted that two fellow defendants who received similar sentences but declined to move to a Somali jail were later released on appeal in the Seychelles.
It's hard to shake the impression that many of those in prison are foot soldiers, while the pirate masterminds remain at large. According to various United Nations reports on Somalia, some of the leaders of these gangs poured their ill-gotten gains into other businesses, such as arms trafficking and aviation.
Alan Cole, the East Africa head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, warns that these networks could be activated at a moment's notice. He believes Somalia is enjoying an "artificial" calm, thanks largely to the Western navies but also because commercial shipping lines have taken on private security firms to protect their vessels.
"Young Somalis will go back to this if the conditions are ripe," he added.
While Western warships have deterred would-be pirates, many fear what will happen when they leave. Although Puntland has its own small counter-piracy force, the Gulf-funded Puntland Maritime Police Unit, it has only 15 light speedboats — far too small a resource to patrol such a vast stretch of water.
With NATO and European Union mandates up for review at the end of 2016, Cole said that there is mounting pressure from member states to redeploy warships to places such as the Mediterranean, a move that could plunge this region into a new round of insecurity.
John Steed of Oceans Beyond Piracy agrees.
"If commercial vessels decide it's no longer expedient to employ armed guards," he said, "these guys will just surge."
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